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West Virginia Mountaineers vs Missouri Tigers

Missouri Tigers linebacker Nick Bolton returns his fourth quarter interception for a touchdown against West Virginia. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Sean Weatherspoon flipped on the Missouri game Saturday, he couldn’t keep his eyes off No. 32. Weatherspoon, a three-time first-team all-conference linebacker for the Tigers from 2007-09, ended his college career on the short list of greatest defensive players to wear the black and gold. When he watched Mizzou’s Nick Bolton — the latest weakside linebacker to play the spot where Weatherspoon starred — memories came flashing back.

“It was almost like déjà vu,” Weatherspoon, 31, said in phone interview Tuesday from his home just outside of Atlanta. “When I was watching him it wasn’t like seeing yourself, but he played like someone who loves to play football and someone who’s contagious out there.”

Bolton’s day against West Virginia was one of the most complete performances by a Mizzou linebacker in recent memory. In just his second career start, the sophomore finished with 10 tackles, three behind the line of scrimmage, and two interceptions, the second of which he returned for a touchdown. On Monday he was named the Southeastern Conference’s defensive player of the week. Pro Football Focus named him to its national team of the week.

Bolton became the first Mizzou linebacker to pick off two passes and return one for a touchdown since … Weatherspoon, who did the same against Illinois in 2008.

“I take my hat off to him for playing that well for being such a young guy,” said Weatherspoon, a first-round NFL draft pick by Atlanta in 2010 who played seven seasons with the Falcons and Cardinals. “It reminds me of my progression there. Shoot, I didn’t get any picks my sophomore year. He’s already one up on me. He’s doing his thing right away. It’s pretty cool to see.”

Bolton gets to see Weatherspoon every day: A giant image of the former star linebacker is plastered across the wall outside the linebackers’ meeting room in MU’s new south end zone facility.

“It’s hard to miss him,” Bolton said after Tuesday’s practice.

Bolton, from Frisco, Texas, was a three-star high school prospect who was committed to the University of Washington until the Pac-12 team pulled its scholarship offer. For a while Texas A&M showed interest, but it wasn’t until two days before national signing day when the 6-foot Bolton chose Missouri.

“He was under-recruited because people questioned his height and questioned his speed, but you can’t question his heart and leadership, his intangibles,” Frisco Lone Star High School coach Jeff Rayburn said. “He’s going to be the most prepared player on the field every single week.”

A four-year starter at Lone Star — unofficially the most Texas high school name in the state — Bolton became as much of a coach as a player by the time he was an upperclassman, to the point where he helped shape the team’s game plan each week.

“We’d give him a menu of things to call and he’d call the defense out there,” Rayburn said. “He’d get a scouting report on Sundays from our coaches and he’d come in Mondays with thoughts and ideas and work as an integral part of our staff. As he got to be a junior and senior, we joked around that our rule was, Nick Bolton was never wrong, because most of the time he wasn’t. He’s just so intuitive to what’s going on out there.”

The same on-field aptitude earned Bolton immediate playing time at Missouri as a freshman last fall, when he became Terez Hall’s understudy at the weakside position. When Hall was ejected in the first half at Alabama for targeting, Bolton calmly stepped in and finished with eight tackles.

“He’s definitely football savvy,” Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “You can tell he’s played the game for a long time. It helps he was in a really good program in Texas and everybody knows what Texas high school ball is about and how often they play. And it shows up. He just understands leverage. He understands angles. He understands coverage and where his help is at. And that lends itself to knowing when you can pull the trigger and when you got to stay and take care of responsibility. It was fun to see his hard work and preparation show up on Saturday.”

Just don’t expect Bolton to start crafting Walters’ game plans like he did in Frisco.

“It kind of came natural in high school but college is a whole different animal,” Bolton said. “Offenses in college are more advanced, but in high school I enjoyed helping our (coordinator) come up with schemes and watching film and evaluating and trying to figure out the best way to execute against our opponent. Coming here that kind of translated a little bit.”

Bolton, alongside middle linebacker Cale Garrett, was a major reason the Tigers held West Virginia to negative rushing yardage by the time the backup defense took over in the fourth quarter. The Tigers barely resembled the unit that Wyoming thrashed for 297 rushing yards a week earlier.

“I think he’s got more confidence now having a full game under his belt,” MU coach Barry Odom said. “He’s got a good guy lined up next to him showing him the ropes on how to prepare. But it means something to (Bolton). And he understands how important his role is at that spot in the defensive structure on how we play.”

More than a decade ago, Weatherspoon, too, was an underrated recruit from Texas who found his way to Mizzou. The two exchanged some tweets after Saturday’s game. Weatherspoon challenged Bolton to get another pick-six this week. Back in 2008, Weatherspoon became the first player in Mizzou history to return interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games. The second game was against Southeast Missouri, which happens to be the Tigers’ opponent Saturday.

On Tuesday, Bolton called Weatherspoon “an All-American dude.”

“Everybody talks good about him,” he said, “so it’s just a blessing to be in the conversation with him.”

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